KNOX – When in Rome, wash your hands but don’t steal the hand sanitizer

THEY HAD to screw the hand-sanitizer dispenser to the church wall.

With all of Italy desperate for disinfectant gel, and the dispenser tantalizingly close to the front entrance, passing sinners were bound to succumb to temptation.

“People will disappear with it,” says Rev. Rob Warren.

These are weird times for Warren, the Victoria-raised vicar of All Saints’ Anglican Church in Rome. If you think COVID-19 has us squirming in Canada, check out what’s going on in Italy, where the death toll from the virus closed in on 200 Friday.

This week, the Italian government blanketed the country with a decreto aimed at containing the disease. Schools are closed. Handshakes might be banned. Soccer fans face the spectre of games played in empty, eerily silent stadiums. Anywhere people congregate is under scrutiny. That includes churches.

“Certain gatherings are now forbidden,” Warren says. “Certain gatherings are not.”

This is not what Warren, who was raised in 10 Mile Point, expected when he moved to Rome a year ago. He went there from a parish in France, which followed a parish in Scotland, which followed a long stint in Montreal, where he ran a big homeless shelter.

Like other denominations, the Anglicans are following the lead of the dominant Roman Catholic church (being an Anglican in Rome is like being a Maple Leafs fan in Vancouver) in translating the government decree into practice.

“Our Sunday school is now meeting outside, but church services may continue inside as long as we have at least a metre between people,” Warren says. (He notes that all those out-of-school kids don’t observe this rule while riding the subway cheek-to-jowl.)

Warren must prepare for the possibility the churches will be told to close altogether: “We may need to find a way of recording or videotaping the mass and sending it out as a podcast.”

The Anglicans have already shut their doors up north in Lombardy and Veneto, the hardest-hit areas, but Warren doesn’t want to do so in Rome unless the government says they must.

For now, All Saints is trying to adapt. It has temporarily given up the common cup, the practice of sipping communion wine from a shared chalice. The sexton religiously (as it were) applies disinfectant to furniture.

The passing of the peace, in which members of the congregation embrace or shake hands, has been suspended. “We now look at each other and nod.” Some parishioners, never happy with the touchy-feeliness in the first place, are happy about that.

There are complications. The elderly are supposed to stay at home, but for many older people the church is their main source of social contact. Warren’s English-speaking congregation includes a group of delightful elderly British-born women who came to Italy in their early 20s, married older Italian men, and are now widowed.

They might speak Italian to their grandchildren, but they enjoy drinking English tea together on Wednesday afternoons. They will continue to do so, but in the garden outside the church. Pray it doesn’t rain.

Attendance at services has dropped from an average of 70 to 40. The losses include not just English-speaking tourists but half a dozen one-term wonders, the cheerful American college students who join the congregations for a few months while taking a semester in Rome. Their U.S. universities are bringing them home, not out of fear of COVID-19, but out of concern that they would be trapped should international travel be suspended.

The loss of visitors is noticeable. Waiters twiddle their thumbs outside empty restaurants. When Warren went from All Saints to the nearby Spanish Steps to tape a sermon that required a crowd scene, he found only a few dozen people in a piazza that’s normally crammed. He was supposed to attend a reception for the English team playing Italy in the Six Nations rugby tournament, but the function was cancelled, the game postponed indefinitely.

That’s what really has people worried. While Italians appreciate the need to halt the virus, they are generally less alarmed about the possibility that they, individually, will become seriously ill than they are about the probability of economic harm.

“Most people are saying the damage to Italy will be in lost jobs, not lost lives,” Warren says. “It would be like Victoria losing its tourist trade.”

That’s a grim thought. Wash your hands (but don’t steal the hand sanitizer).

Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloopsian who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.

About Mel Rothenburger (8171 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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